Emirati Culture

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) consists of the seven small emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al-Qaiwain, and Fujairah, which were united as a federal state on 2 December 1971. Before the establishment of the oil economy in the early 1960s, two main orientations shaped traditional Emeriati culture: the nomadic desert-oriented Bedouins with small oasis farming within the broader context of the desert economy and culture, and the sea-oriented culture that revolved around pearling and sea trading. These subcultures were economically, politically, and socially interdependent, creating a common culture and social identity. The UAE shares significant aspects of its culture with neighboring Arab countries and the larger Arab culture.

Location and Geography. The UAE covers 32,278 square miles (83,600 square kilometers) and is located on the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. It shares land borders with Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The seven emirates vary greatly in size. Abu Dhabi represents 85 percent of the land, and the smallest emirate is Ajman. Each emirate is named after its capital city, and Abu Dhabi City is the permanent capital of the nation. The inland area is mostly desert with a few oases, and the barren Hajar Mountains run through the country. The UAE has a dry climate with very high temperatures and humidity in the summer.

F OOD AND E CONOMY

Food in Daily Life. Before the 1960s, food consisted mainly of fish, rice, bread, dates, yogurt, homegrown vegetables, and meat from sheep, goats, and camels. The diet has improved in quality and variety, with modern supermarkets offering imported foods.

Lunch is the main family meal and is eaten at home at around two o’clock. It usually consists of fish, rice, meat, and a vegetable dish. Many Emiratis prefer the traditional style of eating with the right hand. There are strict Muslim taboos against pork and alcohol, and meat must be slaughtered according to the Islamic halal method.

Emiratis are known for their hospitality; they feel honored when receiving guests and socializing with friends and relatives. Guests are welcomed with coffee and fresh dates. Incense is passed around so that guests can catch the fragrance in their headwear. With the immigrant population have come restaurants offering a wide variety of ethnic foods, and fast-food restaurants have also become popular.

Basic Economy. Income is among the highest in the world, but there are large differences between the emirates, with Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah producing the most oil. The other emirates have benefitted from oil wealth through the federal welfare system and employment in state institutions.

With declining oil prices, the government has attempted to diversify the national economy. This has led to the growth of industry, construction, commerce, free trade zones, transportation, tourism, farming, fisheries, and communications. The rapid development of these sectors has reduced the nation’s dependence on oil. In 1998, the gross domestic product was estimated at $45,590 million, 70 percent from the nonoil sector.

The national currency name is called the Emirian Dirham.

Major Industries and Trade. The UAE is the third largest exporter of crude oil and gas in the Gulf. It is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Division of Labor. Citizens account for 10 percent of the total labor force. Almost all nationals (99 percent) work in the state sector because of the attractive benefits and are employed mainly in nontechnical jobs in education, the army, the police, and the civil service. They also own all Emirati businesses. Immigrants are employed in both the public and private sectors in manual, technical, and professional occupations.

S OCIAL S TRATIFICATION

Classes and Castes. Emirati society is divided into two social categories: the nationals ( Al-Muwateneen ) and the foreign immigrants, referred to as the incomers ( Al-Wafedeen ). Citizens are subdivided into four main social classes: (1) the ruling sheikhly families, whose members hold the highest political positions and power and have immense wealth and prestige, (2) the merchant class, known as al-tujjar , traditionally pearling merchants who now sell international consumer goods, (3) the new middle class, represented by increasing numbers of professionals who have benefitted from free state education, and (4) the low-income groups, represented by newly settled Bedouin nomads and former pearl divers and oasis farmers.

Among the immigrants there are hierarchical groups that receive different economic and social rewards: (1) top professionals and technocrats with international contracts, who earn high salaries and other benefits, (2) middle-range professionals such as school teachers, skilled technicians, and company salesmen, and (3) low-paid semi-skilled and unskilled workers, primarily Asian. In general, nationals are a privileged minority, and benefit from state laws and business regulations.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The symbol of a male national as a distinct social category is seen most visibly in the traditional dress of a white robe ( kandoura ) and white head cloth ( ghutrah ) with a black rope ( aqal ). Men grow short beards and mustaches.

An old fortress surrounded by modern buildings in Abu Dhabi. After 1960, mud-walled communities transformed into commercial centers.

Women wear long dresses with a head cover ( hijab ) and black cloak ( abayah ).

P OLITICAL L IFE

Government. The UAE has a federal government that is made up of several organs: the president and his deputy, the Supreme Council, the cabinet, the Federal National Council, and an independent judiciary with a federal supreme court. The Supreme Council has both legislative and executive powers and includes the rulers of the seven emirates. The cabinet consists of ministers drawn mainly from the ruling families of the emirates.

Leadership and Political Officials. The fact that the traditional tribal system of government each emirate was based on similar political principles facilitated the establishment of the UAE. Hereditary dynastic family rule still operates in each emirate as a local government system under the umbrella of the federal system. Members of the ruling families occupy the most important positions in their political administrations. While the political system continues to retain some of its traditional values at formal and informal levels, it has been able to keep pace with economic and social change. The sheikhs are highly regarded for performing the dual roles of modernizers and guardians of the cultural heritage. They still have traditional majlis where citizens have access to their leaders.

M ARRIAGE , F AMILY, AND K INSHIP

Marriage. Arranged endogamous marriage within the kinship (tribal) units was the preferred pattern in the preoil period, but this pattern has changed somewhat. Individuals now have greater choice, yet many nationals still prefer arranged marriages. Emiratis are strongly discouraged from marrying nonnationals, and a young man receives $19,000 from the Marriage Fund if he marries a national. As prescribed by Islam, a man is allowed up to four wives, but most men have only one wife.

Domestic Unit. The traditional household unit of the extended family has been undermined, as over 80 percent of national households live as nuclear families in their own houses. Large families are encouraged by the state as a national policy, and family size is six to eight children. The husband’s authority is declining, while the wife is gaining importance as a mother and the manager of the domestic unit. On average, each household employs two live-in domestic servants, usually Asian.

Kin Groups. UAE society is family- and kin-oriented. Tribal kinship units play a significant role in social identification and one’s standing in the community. Most families prefer to live in the same neighborhood as their kin.

R ELIGION

Religious Beliefs. Islam dominates all aspects of life. Most Emiratis are members of the Sunni sect. Matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, economics, politics, and personal conduct are affected by Sharia (Islamic) law.

Emaritis are tolerant toward other religions, and immigrants of other faiths are allowed to have their own places of worship. Large numbers of Asian and Arab immigrants also follow Islam.

Rituals and Holy Places. The main Muslim religious ritual is prayer five times a day. This requires wodou (ablution) for purification. Usually people go to the nearest mosque or pray at home. The rituals involved in the pilgrimage ( Haj ) to Mecca are the most elaborate. One must remove the shoes before entering a mosque. In large mosques, there are separate areas for women.

S ECULAR C ELEBRATIONS

The UAE national day, 2 December, is the most important secular celebration. Cities are decorated with colored lights, and folklore troops perform in heritage villages. 1 January is a holiday but is not celebrated by nationals. Expatriate communities celebrate their own religious and secular holidays.

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